Salton Sea

Salton Sea is a shallow body of water located in the Riverside and Imperial counties of California along the San Andreas Fault.  It covers an area of around 889 sq km. Salton is the largest lake in California, and is also one of the lowest places in the country, in terms of elevation, being -71.9 m below sea level.

The location of Salton Sea.

Formation Of Salton Sea

The path of the Colorado River has changed over time, and sometimes would flow into the Imperial Valley, or at other times throughout history divert around it. When humans discovered the potential benefits of intentionally diverting the river’s path, irrigation canals were built in order to direct the flow of water with the intention of using it to irrigate the area around the Imperial Valley.

Salton Sea
Aerial View of the Salton Sea, surrounded by the Imperial Valley and the Mojave Desert. 

There were some problems with the constructed canals, and silt buildup became a problem. Because of this, modifications were made, which eventually led to the river flooding in 1905. This overflow spilled into the Salton Basin. The water flowed in this manner for nearly two years before repairs were completed on the original canal, meaning the once dry basin became what is now the Salton Sea. 

Salton Sea
Salton Sea, California.


The area around the Salton Sea has been converted into a state park and recreation area. Visitors to the park can enjoy boating, kayaking,and beach areas. The area is also popular for fishing, and has a number of hiking trails and campsites. However, activities have shifted somewhat over the last few decades as the water and air quality in the region has fallen.

Salton Sea
An Abandoned Chair on the Salton Sea beach, California. 

The Sea In decline

The Salton Sea is saline, meaning it has a higher content of salt in its waters than most freshwater lakes. The lake is also in the path of a large volume of agricultural runoff, which has brought increasing amounts of fertilizers into the lake's waters. Since the Colorado River used to irrigate much of the Imperial Valley, the excess water and agriculture runoff feeds right into Salton Sea.

Salton Sea
Dead fishes in the Salton Sea. 

The lake’s terminal nature means that though water is continually flowing into the lake, there is no outflow, and water only leaves via evaporation. Because of this, the water within the lake can easily become more and more polluted, and also naturally becomes increasingly saline. The strong salt content and the growing levels of nutrients and fertilizer mean that fewer and fewer fish species are surviving within the waters of the Salton Sea, and that the beaches and air quality are also in decline. 


Salton Sea
A group of American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) in the Salton Sea. 

Despite the negative human impacts, the Salton Sea remains one of the few remaining wetland areas in California. Though the region is seeing an increase in toxicity, it is still an important habitat for various species of birds which migrate through the area. 

The only native animal in Salton Sea is the Desert pupfish, which is listed as an endangered species in the United States. Though several types of fishes likely lived in the sea in previous decades, especially around the early 1900s when the Colorado River first flowed into the basin, the pupfish and the invasive species known as Mozambique Tilapia are the only remaining fish in the Salton Sea. today